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Stephen Sondheim: Biography, Songs & Musicals

Instructor: Greg Simon

Greg is a composer and jazz trumpeter. He has a doctorate from the University of Michigan and has taught college and high school music.

This article will introduce you to the life and work of Stephen Sondheim. Learn about this American composer and lyricist, one of the most important figures in the history of Broadway musicals, then test your knowledge with a quiz.

A Legacy In Stone

Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim. Image courtesy of The Huntington.

Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim's legacy was literally cast in stone when, in 2010, Henry Miller's Theatre in New York was renamed the 'Stephen Sondheim Theatre.' Sondheim is one of Broadway's giants - a master artist whose musicals and songs have inspired theatergoers and charmed listeners for over sixty years. This lesson will introduce you to his musicals and legacy.

Early Life

The Stephen Sondheim Theatre
The Stephen Sondheim Theatre in New York. Photo by Dennis Beck / Broadway Tour.

Stephen Sondheim was born in New York City on March 22, 1930. His tumultuous childhood included a custody battle between his parents, the departure of his father, and a hostile relationship with his mother; but it also included a friendship with a boy named James Hammerstein, whose father was the playwright and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II.

Hammerstein is famous for his work with Richard Rodgers and other important composers, and his credits include the lyrics for The Sound of Music, Cinderella, and The King and I. When Sondheim showed an interest in composing musical theater works, Hammerstein began tutoring him in composition and lyric-writing. All his life, Sondheim has credited Hammerstein with developing his early love of musical theater and composing.

Sondheim attended Williams College but continued to seek help from composers he admired who weren't part of the Williams faculty, such as the avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt. After college, Sondheim met a producer named Lem Ayers, who commissioned him for three songs in a show entitled Saturday Night; while this was meant to be Sondheim's Broadway debut, the show's premiere was ultimately cancelled.

West Side Story and Gypsy

Sondheim's actual Broadway debut would come a few years later, when his friend Arthur Laurents asked him to write lyrics for a musical adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet that Laurents was writing. This adaption was a musical entitled West Side Story; alongside composer Leonard Bernstein, Sondheim wrote thirteen songs to go with Laurents' libretto. West Side Story debuted in 1957 and was a success, running for over 700 Broadway performances; songs from the show like 'I Feel Pretty' and 'Somewhere' have since become popular in their own right, with artists like Little Richard, Tom Waits, and Barbra Streisand all recording their own versions.

This early success led to Laurents calling Sondheim again, this time to write lyrics for Gypsy, a new musical starring Broadway legend Ethel Merman. Gypsy premiered in 1959 and was another success. Some of its best-known songs, such as 'Let Me Entertain You' and 'Everything's Coming Up Roses', are still recorded today.

Composing for Broadway

Sondheim's impressive work with Gypsy and its star Ethel Merman gave producers the confidence to hire him to write not only lyrics, but music as well. His Broadway debut as a composer/lyricist was A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum from 1962, yet another critical and box-office success. Following Forum, though, Sondheim's luck ran out; his next few shows, Anyone Can Whistle (1964) and Do I Hear A Waltz (1965), were failures on Broadway and wrought with problems in production.

The Prince Era

Things would turn around at the beginning of the 1970s, when Sondheim began working with director Hal Prince, with whom he'd been friends since the 1950s. The decade produced a new crop of Sondheim hits. Company (1970), the Sondheim/Prince duo's first collaboration, won three Tony awards and enjoyed a run of over 700 performances at Alvin Theatre. A Little Night Music from 1973 was not only a smashing success, but it also produced 'Send in the Clowns', a heart-wrenching song about lost love that has become one of Sondheim's most popular showtunes.

A scene from Sweeney Todd
A scene from Sweeney Todd. Photo by Patrick Weishampel.

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